Decoding Ohio's New Truancy Law for Students with Disabilities

When Ohio updated its truancy law in 2017, the move required schools to emphasize prevention over punishment. Lawmakers shifted the focus from court proceedings to intervention strategies in schools, hoping students will return to the classroom and face a better chance for academic success. In the process, the juvenile justice system can reduce its caseload and focus on more serious matters.

Districts are now prohibited from suspending and expelling students solely on truancy. This includes enforcement of zero-tolerance policies. Instead, schools must utilize absence intervention strategies to assist habitually truant or excessively absent students. One strategy is the formation of an absence intervention team. These teams identify root causes, such as transportation, nutrition and family issues, then develop a corrective action plan for the student and family. According to the law, intervention teams should be formed based on the specific needs of each student. They should include at least two school representatives, one of whom is familiar with the student, as well as a parent or guardian. Several attempts should be made to engage both the student and parent in the intervention process.

The approach is straightforward, but students with disabilities pose a separate set of challenges. Some students might have legitimate reasons for missing class and still be considered excessively absent, such as those who are medically unable to attend. Ohio's new truancy law provides no exemptions for disability-related absences. Schools must follow the required intervention procedures in all circumstances.

For students with disabilities, districts must consider the student's disability when addressing absences. If an intervention team is utilized, it should attempt to determine if absences are disability related, and if so, consider alternative educational options such as home instruction or online learning opportunities. Districts should be careful not to assume that a student intentionally misses school without considering all of the information available – including information from medical and/or mental health providers, parents and feedback from teachers.

When addressing absences of students with disabilities, school districts must be cognizant of their obligation to provide a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) to the student – whether the student is eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Districts must ensure that the services they are providing offer the student a FAPE. Teams must make individualized decisions and not utilize a "one size fits all" approach to serving students with disabilities who have chronic, disability-related attendance issues.

Because Ohio's new truancy law does not include any exceptions for students with disabilities, schools must follow the new law without discriminating against students with disabilities. When contacting parents of excessively absent students with disabilities, schools should explain to parents that, although the student's absences are disability-related, the district is obligated to provide attendance interventions to comply with Ohio law. Districts should also be careful to apply Ohio's new truancy law in all situations of habitually truant or excessively absent students. This evenhanded approach complies with the law while also eliminating discriminatory decision-making practices.

All districts and community schools in Ohio should review their policies and determine if changes are needed to satisfy the new law.

Definitions and Guidelines

The term chronic truancy has been removed from Ohio law and should no longer be included in a district's policies and procedures. This includes zero-tolerance policies.

Excessive absences occur with or without legitimate excuses. This is now defined by at least 38 hours per month or 65 hours within a school year. These limits trigger the district's intervention plan for any student, including disability or medically-related absences. The district must notify parents in writing within seven days of the triggering absence.

A habitual truant student is absent without a legitimate excuse for at least 30 consecutive hours; 42 hours per month; or 72 hours in a school year. This triggers the formation of an absence intervention team within seven days of the triggering event, and the development of an action plan 14 days thereafter. The school must make three attempts to engage a parent or guardian in the process.

Christina Peer is the education chair of Walter ǀ Haverfield. She provides counsel to boards of education on student discipline, collective bargaining, employee grievances and employee evaluations, among other matters. Christina counsels on state and federal laws related to students with disabilities, and she routinely trains teachers and administrators on special education issues. For more information contact Christina at 216-928-2918 or at cpeer@walterhav.com.

James McWeeney is an attorney in Walter | Haverfield's Education Law practice group. He advises clients on First Amendment issues specific to school districts, labor and employment matters, contract disputes, public record request compliance and policy drafting. James can be reached at 216-928-2959 or at jmcweeney@walterhav.com.